Whilst we all know that tiny house living will involve downsizing and embracing a life of minimalism, it is nearly impossible to live in a tiny house which only has a few storage cabinets. Even with the simplest of lifestyles, you will often find that you need just a bit extra storage - especially after going on a much-needed shopping trip. So what can you do?

The Japanese concept of Tansu (箪笥) revolves around having small boxes, chests and cabinets with built-in storage. Based on this, if you built a staircase out of small storage boxes/cabinets of varying sizes, you end up with tansu stairs. They would offer lots of storage, and a really practical way of getting up to your bedroom: a win-win.

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What Exactly Are Tiny House Tansu Stairs

As our introduction mentions, tansu stairs - sometimes called storage stairs - are an ingenious solution to two common problem in tiny houses: how to access your loft bedroom, and how to maximize storage space. Tansu is a traditional Japanese concept which refers to wooden boxes and cabinets that have storage space, and if you were to stack lots of these different-shaped boxes together you would end up with the following:

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That is just a basic frame, of course: you could add doors or even hanging rails (on the biggest cabinet space) to customize the stairs as you would like. Heck, as we will see later, you could even have a big ‘storage’ space in the bottom as a place for your dog to sleep! That is the beauty of tansu storage stairs: they can be completely customized to suit your needs.

The key thing about tansu stairs is that instead of wasted space under your stairs, you have really useful storage. The main downside is that they take up more space though: a simple ladder takes up barely any space, whilst a smaller staircase will take up a bit more room but also allow you to have some furniture (or storage) underneath it.

Photo and Video Examples

The gallery of photos below shows off tansu stairs from our amazing amateur tiny house roundup article:

We also loved these videos showcasing tansu stairs:

Why Tansu Stairs Are Effective In Tiny Houses

We love tansu stairs within tiny houses for a few simple reasons:

  1. They offer lots of storage space compared to a simple staircase (or ladder). You can never have enough storage space, even if you sell 90% of your possessions and plan to live the ultimate minimalist lifestyle. The choice for storage within a tiny house can often come down to storing stuff on your floor and tables, so tansu stairs with inbuilt storage will solve this problem for you.
  2. They look fairly unique and can be completely customized to your specific needs. As you will have seen in the photos and videos earlier, each tansu staircase is different. They are unique to each tiny home owner’s needs. Need a place for your dog to sleep? No problem: have a wide slot at the bottom of your stairs. Need to store some shoes? Simple, have a few different slots low-down where they can be easily accessed. By building your staircase around the idea of boxes of different sizes, you can end up with the perfect storage solution.
  3. They are safer to use than a ladder. Ladders are not very family friendly: my partner hates using them, and children like using them: but are often unsafe when climbing them. Tansu stairs provide a much safer way of climbing up to the loft bedroom, as the surface area for your feet is much bigger (compared to the ladder rung). You can also incorporate a stair-rail along the outside edge of your storage stairs if you wanted, to add even more safety.

How To Build Tansu Stairs

Because tansu stairs are unique for each situation, you will not be able to nip down a building warehouse and buy an ‘off the shelf’ staircase! You will need to plan out how much space you want your tansu stairs to take up, and then work out a plan of how many boxes/cabinets you need to form that space. You could always get a carpenter in for this stage, although we would suggest that you try and plan this out yourself (even if you do then get a contractor to build the individual cabinets).

This is not as hard as it sounds. The main things you need to know is how tall your stairs will need to be (to reach your loft platform) and how long they can be (so as to not hit into your couch or kitchen cabinets, for example):

A diagram showing that the stairs need to get to a loft height of 230cm/91 inches and can be no longer than 250cm/98 inches

Once you know this basic information, you can put these figures into a stairs calculator such as from Calculator.net or MyCarpentry. You might want to start with the ‘Basic’ calculator from Calculator.net because their ‘Comprehensive’ one - and the calculator from MyCarpentry - is a little confusing to begin with. But once you understand it more, feel free to move to those other calculators as they provide even more control and detail of the calculations.

What you want to figure out here is actually quite simple:

  1. How many total steps will you have? The more steps you have, the more total length will be taken up. The less steps you have, the steeper the climb will be. So there is a balancing act here.
  2. The width (tread) and height (riser) of each individual step. If you have a really small tread, your feet might not comfortably fit on each step: which could potentially be unsafe by making you more likely to fall. But a too-long tread will end up taking up too much total length. Equally, a small riser will mean more steps whilst a too-big riser will lead to steep steps.

Now that might seem pretty annoying: you obviously do not want each step to be too tall because your staircase will be too hard to climb, but if you end up with too many steps then your staircase will be too long. Ugh!

To make it easier for you, it is worth looking at the photo and video examples from earlier and you will notice that most tiny house tansu stairs have between 6-8 steps. For a typical tiny house build, this gives a good balance between comfortable steps (via a sufficient tread and riser) and a staircase that does not take up too much overall space in your downstairs. DIY Housbuilding went through a similar calculation exercise as us and ended up concluding that 7 steps was ideal for them. We would agree that for most cases, 6-7 steps is probably best for a tiny house - but, of course, this all depends on your specific tiny home layout.

Why/When They Are Not Possible

As seen above, the installation of a staircase (whether they are tansu storage stairs, or a simpler staircase) depends on the overall length that is available to achieve the required height.

If your loft space is positioned higher than normal, you might find that you would need over 110” (280cm) of free space to build a suitable staircase. This is quite a lot of free space to find in a tiny house, where space is at a premium.

Equally if you have a small family, you might find that having more steps and small risers is ideal (otherwise they might find it too hard to climb the stairs). But as we seen above, more steps + small risers = more overall length required. So in this case, you might find that you cannot fit in a staircase. Of course, the alternative is a ladder which is not child-friendly either - meaning you need to plan your tiny house layout carefully if you have young children.

Disadvantages Of Tansu Stairs

You can probably tell from reading this article that we are fans of tansu stairs: they are a unique and flexible staircase solution which offers you lots of storage. What’s not to love? Well some people find that:

  1. They take more time to build and install. A tansu staircase is made up of a series of different-sized box cabinets, which naturally means that they will take longer to build than traditional staircases. Once each cabinet is built, you then need to securely fit them together - without any unexpected ridges which could lead to people tripping.
  2. They cost more to build. As you can probably guess, tansu stairs are not the cheapest of options. Whilst they are very handy, they can also be quite expensive. They will be a lot more expensive than a simple ladder, but also quite a few hundred dollars more than a standard staircase.
  3. They take up more space. Storage stairs are naturally quite ‘bulky’ because of how they are constructed, meaning that they will take up more space than a standard staircase. Space is at a premium in a tiny house, meaning that the extra space for tansu stairs might not be worth it.
  4. You do not need tansu stairs to have extra storage. A simpler ladder will take up barely any space, meaning that you have extra space for shelves, rails and storage cabinets. This is also true for standard staircases, which have plenty of space underneath free for cupboards, shelves and other storage solutions.